Sitting here in shady Westminster Hall, which dates back to 1097, nothing much seems to have changed. Outside, however, a few hundred yards across the road on a College Green bathed in blazing sunshine, assorted pundits and politicians have been milling around most of the day, all busily analysing an electoral landscape that seems to have changed utterly.
From my venerable vantage point, it would be easy to advise them that this Ukip thing will run its course, that it will peak next May in the European elections, after which politics as usual will re-assert itself. And part of me (maybe a big part of me) still wants to do that. That, after all, is what we’ve seen so many times before and—odds on—will see again this time.
And yet, and yet… For that to happen, the Conservative party will have to get a grip and stop doing what it seems to have spent the last two—maybe even ten—years doing. Going right back to William Hague and with only a brief let-up between 2005 and 2007 when Cameron first came in, they have steadily given the impression to anyone paying attention that deep down UKIP has got a point—that we really are ruled by Brussels’s diktats, that this crowded island really is full, that scroungers really are taking us all for a ride, that we really are taxed to the hilt, that we really are being strangled by red tape, that we really do live in a place where political correctness counts for more than common sense, and that our best years are probably behind us.
I can understand why they’ve done it. Some Tories genuinely agree with Ukip—it reminds them of the Conservative party they imagine they once belonged to. Others are simply frightened by the power of the press or else reason (understandably, given polls and focus groups) that its no-nonsense views are shared by lots of people—people whose votes the government isn’t likely to win on bread and butter issues like the economy or public services. Show those voters, the story goes, that it’s not only Ukip who are listening to their concerns and they’ll soon—or eventually—come flooding back. Meanwhile Labour ends up looking like a soft touch, because it can’t or won’t follow you down that blind alley. 2015? Game over.
But it doesn’t always work out like that. By simply mirroring their anxieties, telling them that you “get it,” standing up to Europe, tightening border controls, clamping down on welfare abuse, raising tax thresholds and cocking a snook at health and safety, all you do is leave them wanting more—and looking around for a party that will promise it to them, knowing full well it will never be asked to deliver on that promise. Meanwhile, you lose to Labour and the Lib Dems a whole bunch of voters who just can’t put up with the rubbish that you, and Ukip, and your friends in the newspapers are talking.
Some will say that the Tories have set their course and had better stick to it. Others—notably on the right wing of the parliamentary party and the party-in-the-media—will call on Cameron to track Ukip even more closely. Maybe, believing that at heart he’s still a liberal wet, they will even call for him to step down, particularly if—or rather when—he suffers another drubbing at the European elections next year.
But this is tosh—the equivalent of telling a man in a hole to keep digging or else you’ll replace him with someone with a bigger shovel. Quite how David Cameron climbs out of that hole, of course, is anyone’s guess, but it has to have more to do with the economy picking up, and with continuing to lay into Ed Miliband, than it does with hugging Nigel Farage closer and closer.
Right now, he needs to be thinking about two things: how he can avoid facing Farage in a televised leader’s debate and how he’s going to answer the so-called Ronald Reagan question: are you better off now than you were four (in his case five) years ago? If he can’t, all the Ukip-lite stuff people will push on him in the days, weeks and months to come won’t make a blind bit of difference.